Jake Shimabukuro is something of a marvel. He doesn't play a traditional instrument (he plays the ukulele), and he doesn't sing (all his songs are instrumental). And yet he's been able to make a name for himself in the music world.
It helps that he's something of a genius when it comes to playing the ukulele. You'd be hard-pressed to find another artist anywhere else in the world who can do what he does with that tiny guitar-like instrument. Watching him perform is jaw-dropping--his hand whips back and forth across his ukulele's strings in a legitimate blur.
We caught up with Jake on the phone earlier this week to talk about his rise to fame and how he's coping with it.
I first heard about you through a friend who, when you toured through the town I was living in, asked me if I’d heard of this "ukulele whiz kid, Jake Shimabukuro." I’m guessing that’s a pretty common story?
Yeah, it’s always been a word of mouth thing. I had a couple videos on Youtube that really helped out, too. It’s all been a great experience, and I’m really grateful for it all.
Not too long ago I finally caught you perform when you played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. And, after your performance, Conan had some really flattering words for you, calling it, I think, one of the impressive things he’s ever had on his show. What was that like?
Oh, I was super nervous backstage, right before going on.
Yeah! [Laughs] It’s national television! I was back stage practicing the song over and over thinking I was going to forget a part of the song even though I’ve played it so many times before.
But it came off really well—and Conan seemed really sincere about how much he enjoyed the performance.
Yeah, that was unbelievable to see his reaction. And he was very sincere. We talked a little bit after the show, too. I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time, too. Just to sit on his couch…It was a while ago now, but I still have to pinch myself when I think about it.
One thing that’s not too tough to figure out about your music is that a lot of the songs you play are covers. And normally at the Observer, we kind of trash the local cover bands here for not being too creative and for just doing their best to make a perfect copy of the original sound and whatnot. But with your music it’s obviously pretty different, given that you have to rearrange the songs for your ukulele and its sound. And I’m guessing the reason you choose to perform covers is to make your sound and your ukulele more accessible for the public?
Yeah, I totally believe that, especially since a lot of the music I play is instrumental. If I cover another song it gives everyone in the audience—including me—a reference point. They’re hearing this song played on an instrument they’d never expected to hear it on before. And it’s interesting because when I perform the songs, they’re getting inside my head and seeing how I see them. That’s how I look at other musicians, too. If I’m listening to a new artist, I usually seek out the cover songs so I can see how they interpret their sound before I look into their other music.
Well, one thing I think you have going for you with the ukulele these days is that a lot of artists in the independent music scene are really embracing some instruments that the general listening public maybe hasn’t listened to in a while.
Yeah. You’re even hearing different instruments like the theremin being used in rock fusion groups. Or the banjo or the violin. I think it’s great. As more and more instruments are being introduced—or re-introduced, actually—they're being accepted. I think of lot of that has to do with all the exposure out there right now for musicians.
Like with the Internet?
Yeah. With the Internet we have all these different players and access to video. In the past, you couldn’t really do that. If you wanted to see how someone played, you had to see them live or listen to their songs over and over. That’s why. Now, we have all these virtuosos and whatnot. It’s all because of the Internet, and it’s amazing.
OK, but your experience pre-dated the Internet music explosion. Your introduction to the ukulele happened when you were really young, right? You were, what, like four years old when you started playing the ukulele?
Yeah, and I couldn’t put it down from the time I learn my first few chords. It’s weird, though. Even in high school, I didn’t think about doing it professionally. You figure that, as a ukulele player, you’re always going to be accompaniment or playing off to the side. You can’t be a rock star.
So what, then, was the turning point for you? When did you realize you had a chance to make it on your own as a ukulele player in the rock and pop worlds?
I guess the turning point for me was about six years ago when I was approached by Sony Music, the record label. I couldn’t believe it. And they’d never signed a ukulele player before.
How’d that come about? Did a man just magically appear at your front door one day and say he wanted to give you a record deal?
It was all the word of mouth thing. There was this girl in Japan who really liked my music and she just passed my name along. Eventually, it got all the way to the vice president of Sony Music in Japan.
And now you’re touring the world with your ukulele. Does the fact that it’s all instrumental make it easier for people of different language backgrounds to pick up on what your doing?
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Yeah, maybe. I think so. If you’re without lyrics, it’s easier to crossover to different languages. But, believe me, I wish I could sing! [Laughs.] It’s funny--everyone else in my family is a great vocalist. But for me it just didn’t work.
Any chance you’ll do a duets album down the line, then, with you playing and different vocalists singing over your music?
Yeah, that’s something I really want to do.
Jake Shimabukuro performs on Monday, April 14, at the House of Blues' Cambridge Room. --Pete Freedman